June 5, 2001 – After 15 years of offering professional development training in everything from customer service to cultural diversity, to everyone from police officers to bartenders, the Virgin Islands Tourism Awareness and Advancement Link is closing its doors this month.
But its heritage will live on, executive director Mabel Maduro says — not only through the "strong foundation" VITAAL has laid in the community but also in what may well become its reincarnation.
In a press release, Maduro said the pending shutdown of the agency is "due to lack of support from the Virgin Islands government. The organization has not received V.I. government financial support since 1995." The more direct cause, however, is that federal grants that have funded the organization since then will not be renewed.
For the last six years, VITAAL's tourism training and education programs have been funded through grants from the Office of Insular Affairs. The grants have been to the University of the Virgin Islands, which has contracted VITAAL to conduct the programs, Maduro said.
But "maybe eight months ago," she said in an interview, she learned that this funding would no longer be available. "We were dealing with the Interior Department," she said. "Policies have changed, and we are in a new administration." And, she said, federal authorities' concern about questionable local government spending and lack of accounting didn't help.
Maduro started VITAAL in 1986, initially working out of space in the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce offices. Two months after it was founded, Carolyn Lanclos came aboard as special projects manager. Two and a half years after that, Gail Steele joined the organization as career specialist. The three still operate the agency, working out of the second-floor offices on Regsjerrings Gade near Rothschild Francis "Market" Square that VITAAL has occupied for all but its first two months.
The agency has partnered with such entities as the Tourism, Education and Labor Departments; the territory's chambers of commerce and hotel associations; Industrial Development Commission beneficiaries, and the University of the Virgin Islands.
In its 15 years, Maduro said in the release, "VITAAL has positively impacted many school-aged youth, taxi operators, front-line employees and managers in both public and private sectors. The organization was created to serve as a catalyst in ensuring that Virgin Islanders, employers and employees, students, entrepreneurs, become sensitive to the value of tourism to the territory and become committed to preparing themselves to be an integral part" of it.
According to Maduro, Gov. Roy Schneider cut off VITAAL's government funding — $65,000 to $75,000 a year — "because he wanted to establish a hospitality institute." She said she was well aware of the governor's plans because "I was the one" who worked with UVI President Orville Kean "to put together the proposal for the institute." The plans, however, never got off the drawing board.
UVI has been involved with VITAAL from its inception, Maduro said, and has "partnered strongly" with the agency in the last five years. "They wanted to increase their involvement in community training and workforce initiatives, and to respond to community needs," she said.
Last year, the university adopted a five-year strategic plan that includes a focus on "aligning their programs more closely with the economic and social needs of the community," she said. "Instead of a new institute, by using UVI we can have a certification program in hospitality training, information technology, professional development."
And, once again, the way she knows so much about UVI's plans is that "I'm doing the ground work on it," on a consultant basis.
"Personally," she adds, "after all the work we've done over the years, I can see it placed under the UVI banner in such a manner — that's like a personal dream come true."
Kean, who chairs the VITAAL board, said in the release that the agency's "experience, knowledge and resources" now will be directed toward the efforts being launched by UVI "to establish a community and personal development program."
Despite the looming shutdown, VITAAL has not lacked for clients, Lanclos said: "The last couple of months have been hectic, conducting training for taxi drivers, then for police, then for a couple of the hotels and restaurants." The agency has provided training in professional development, customer service, heritage, history and culture, along with cultural diversity for the police and a professional development "refresher" for taxi drivers, she said.
Lanclos plans to spend the summer at home enjoying the company of her three sons, then "start fresh in the fall," when she expects she "will still be doing training work under Mabel's umbrella."


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here